When was the last time you ate at Antonio's in Maitland? It's been so long for me that I didn't even know owner Greg Gentile dropped the "La Fiamma" appendage from the restaurant's name. I was up in arm! Ha, no I wasn't, but it was nice to see the place hadn't changed much since my last visit a decade-ish ago. The market and café downstairs is a bit bigger, but it's as lively, energetic, and chock-full of wine, cheese, cured meats and gourmet Italian goodies as ever. Patrons can purchase a bottle of wine from the market, then pop it open at a table in one of the cafe's inviting nooks along with, say, eggplant parmesan, a pear-and-sausage sandwich, or a wood-fired pizza with gorgonzola and figs. But the primary reason for our visit lay up above, in the more formal restaurant upstairs.
The visit, in fact, was precipitated by the restaurant's executive chef Patrick Tramontana – or rather, by Tramontana's Instagram account. His posts, gorgeous, slickly produced pics of soft-core gastronomica, have singlehandedly brought a whole new audience to this bastion for the blue-haired. And frankly, after nearly 28 years in business, this Maitland mainstay could do with some naturally darker follicles in its midst. No doubt, the Old World makes its presence felt here, but in addition to the hushed lighting, white linens, leather-bound menus and thickly accented servers, there's Tramontana, who's as well-versed in the protocols of millennials as he is in constructing exacting dishes.
Yes, they're photogenic, but a starter of long-stem Italian artichokes wrapped in crispy prosciutto and stuffed with goat cheese ($9) was as magnificent to ingest as it was to behold. Gin-cured slivers of salmon mixed with crunchy shaved fennel, arugula, cucumber and parsnip crisps ($9) were delightfully bracing; tossing it in a slick of lemon-dill vinaigrette and a dollop of crème fraîche made the "salad" an even prettier mess. Even perfectly cooked penne with bits of house-made sausage and caramelized onions in a light and balanced tomato sauce ($16) was a fetching plate of chaos.
Tramontana works like a contemporary artist, creating and contriving his works against a timeworn backdrop, but the strokes are purposeful. A heavy brush of basil-pesto crème fraîche gave a plating of oak wood-grilled mutton snapper ($30) served with a mushroom risotto the proper perspective. The meaty fish is graced with an heirloom tomato "salsa" and a whole-grain mustard aioli, adding bursts of color and fancy to the fish's smoky notes.
The braised lamb shank ($23), however, was the unquestionable masterpiece. I don't know what Tramontana did to make the lamb and the Parmesan-sweet pea risotto so damn squisito, but it had everyone at the table marveling as though the dish had been fashioned by Botticelli. Adoration of the shank only intensified when we paired it with a glass of ripasso ($9.50).
Traditional desserts, like tiramisu ($7.50) and profiteroles ($5.95), could hold no such claim. Don't get me wrong, they're worthy meal endings, but they just weren't as visually striking as we'd hoped. We might've been spoiled by Tramontana's plated wonders, sure, but we only have him to blame for wanting to celebrate the art of the meal.